- Paperback: 256 pages
- Publisher: Anchor (September 9, 2003)
- Language: English
- ISBN-10: 1400032601
- ISBN-13: 978-1400032600
- Product Dimensions: 5.3 x 0.6 x 8 inches
- Shipping Weight: 5.6 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
- Average Customer Review: 37 customer reviews
- Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #166,988 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)
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Negotiating with the Dead: A Writer on Writing
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After having been through the "wash-and-spin cycle" a few times, Margaret Atwood realized that her "own experience in the suds may be relevant to others." Thus was born Negotiating with the Dead, six essays about what it means to be a writer, particularly a female writer. Each essay explores one aspect of writerly contemplation: art vs. commerce; the ideal reader; the separation between the part of a person that writes and the part that lives; and, as the title suggests, the constant presence of those who came before (both writers and other ancestors). Atwood relates her own experiences as a female poet (to be taken seriously, it would have helped to commit suicide) and as a bestselling novelist (whether your books are good or bad, sell well or don't, people will look down at you for it). These are intriguing meditations, with references to works by Virgil, Isak Dinesen, Robertson Davies, and countless others (Atwood's own dead, no doubt). --Jane Steinberg --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.
From Library Journal
This book grew out of the series of Empsom lectures that prize-winning novelist Atwood gave at the University of Cambridge in 2000. In it, she addresses a number of fundamental questions: not how to write but the basic position of the writer, why a writer writes, "and for whom? And what is this writing anyway?" Wearing her learning lightly, Atwood allows her wit to shine on almost every page. She probes her life and work along with those of many other writers and brings in myths, fairy tales, movies whatever feeds her themes. Following an initial autobiographical chapter, Atwood addresses major issues: the duplicity evidently inherent in writing; the problems of art vs. money; the problems of art vs. social relevance; the nature of the triangular relationship of writer, reader, and book; and, in the final title chapter, the provocative idea that "all writing of the narrative kind, and perhaps all writing, is motivated, deep down, by a fear of and a fascination with mortality by a desire to make the risky trip to the Underworld, and to bring something or someone back from the dead." Atwood is not looking to provide answers or solutions but to explore the parameters of some interesting questions. The result is engaging food for thought for all who care about writers and writing. Recommended for academic and large public libraries. Mary Paumier Jones, Westminster P.L., CO
Copyright 2002 Cahners Business Information, Inc. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.
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Maeve Binchy was interviewed for Irish TV about her writing techniques. She took out an A4 piece of paper and showed how she would draw pictures of the plot as it unfolded. Another disappointed interviewer. Another famous writer – I forget which one – was asked about his approach to writing. ‘I put my bottom on a seat and stay there’. Seems to be a common approach. All this is just a rather long winded introduction to a review of this book by Margaret Atwood: A Writer on Writing. If you’re looking for a ‘how-to’ book on writing that international bestseller then you won’t find it here. I notice some reviewers, particularly those down the one star end of the scale, are ‘outraged’ or at best ‘disappointed’ that the book leaves them cold and doesn’t explain to them how to write a million seller novel.
Strictly speaking this is not a book but a series of 6 lectures delivered at the request of the BBC. She had 2 years to think about her topics and prepare them. They were edited for book form. She took out some of the more topical quotes or references which could be dismissed in a speech but would not go down so well in a book. The lectures were pitched at a relatively cultured, well-read audience as one would expect. I am not an English literature graduate so a lot of the references to historical novels or authors were lost on me and required a Google search. You don’t need to be an English Major to follow the topics but they do require the ability to follow a reasoned argument or an abstract concept. The reader may need to re-read particular paragraphs to follow the line of thought especially if the examples in support of the argument or observation are unknown to you.
The writer also discusses the difference between the writer and the storyteller and their relationship to the reader or listener. She maintains that to say that a writer is a good storyteller is missing the point entirely. An oral delivery exists is a very distinct context whereas the written word occupies a very different space as it is something made concrete to millions. Books are not one to one experiences but one to millions. Every reader interacts with the book and may take from the writing something which was never put there.
The lectures cover quite a wide subject base and the topics are not obvious from the titles: Orientation. Duplicity. Dedication. Temptation. Communion. Descent : negotiating with the Dead. The reader may get more from one chapter than the other. I particularly found the last one interesting. It discusses the intriguing idea that the dead make demands on the writer’s time and resources in that they may not have ever told their story to posterity. No one knows of their plight. The writer can bring them back again from then to now and make their story new. This may be of relevance to gay writers who have very little historical personal stories to go on. Statistics of service personnel dismissed from the service or flogged for immoral behaviour really don’t bring anyone to life outside the numbers on the page. How many promising lives were destroyed for one act of weakness on a ship? By writing, you are like a magician that brings back the dead to life.
She discusses in some detail the ‘doubleness’ of the writer using the analogy of the superhero – not someone you would probably have anything to do with in their day job – think Clark Kent and Superman. Often times readers go away very disappointed on meeting their favourite author finding them no different from a relative or an old school teacher. ‘Meeting an author you like is like wanting to meet the duck that gave you pate’. Atwood uses the literary devices of the werewolf or Jekyll & Hyde as comparisons for what writers are really like. Dorian Gray gets a lot of page space too.
I could go on and on. The book is more to be mined than read once. You will pick up a lot of references to books you didn’t know existed or had only heard of. I had heard of The Martian Chronicles but never understood the significance of it. I do now!
"I was now faced with real life, in the form of other little girls – their prudery and snobbery, their Byzantine social life based on whispering and vicious gossip, and an inability to pick up earthworms without wriggling all over and making mewing noises like a kitten. I was more familiar with the forthright mindset of boys… little girls were almost an alien species. I was very curious about them, and remain so" (10) .
Here is apparent that not only was she beguiled by other little girls in her childhood, she has maintained a certain separateness rather than camaraderie with the female sex. This distinguishes her work from those of other women writers of women’s fiction, if that is a valid categorisation in the first place. It stems not from a position of self-identification but rather a position of one beholding the Other – with feelings of equal parts awe and fear.
Atwood also discusses her identity as a Canadian writer, postulating how it began to surface when she interrogated the landscape of living authors. She is insightful when she observes the distinguishing characteristic of writing that separates it from other arts, with “its apparent democracy… its availability to almost everyone as a medium of expression” (25). However, she cautions that the apparent easiness of it and the fact that no special training is needed, unlike an opera singer or a dancer, does not mean everyone is a writer, as much as they might feel that they have a book in them, and could write it if only they had the time. She likens being a writer to that of being a grave-digger, who does more than excavate:
You carry upon your shoulders the weight of other people’s projections, of their fears and fantasies and anxieties and superstitions. You represent mortality, whether you like it or not. And so it is with any public role, including that of the Writer, capital W; but also as with any public role, the significance of that role – its emotional and symbolic content – varies over time (26).
In Chapter 2, Atwood examines the duplicitous identities of the author-self and asks:
“Can an ‘author’ exist, apart from the work and the name attached to it? .... And who is the writing ‘I’?” (45).
Atwood identifies the double nature of writers as consisting of two halves, “one half does the living, the other half the writing” (37). The two halves can be seen as having a “parasitic” relationship, or it can be “symbiotic…. The double may be shadowy, but it is also indispensable” (37).
Besides the notion of doubles, Atwood goes on in Chapter 3 to argue about the motive behind a writer’s writing and the notion that “to write for money, or even to be thought to have done so, put you in the prostitute category” (68). Her comeback to the question “Is it true you write the bestsellers?” is “Not on purpose”. She exposes the hypocrisy and feels that “both kinds of snobbery: that which ascribes value to a book because it makes lots of money, and that which ascribes value to a book because it doesn’t” (69) are equally damning.
So what makes a work Art? Atwood details for us the battle over the proper function of art in the 19th century, the sense of martyrdom and sacrifice in the notion of the artist, who is not only self-effacing, but is also priest in service of an implied God of Art, who is “a cruel and selfish god", but also how that view changed so that by Kafka’s time, art for art’s sake was “falling out of widespread favor – and the fasting-artist ends up in a neglected corner of a circus menagerie” (81).
In the second half the book, Atwood addresses the the place of the author, the reader and the text, and the various relationships at play in the process of writing and reading. All serious stuff, but Atwood (as always) with her trademark wit and candour, and through interesting parallels and comparisons, invites the reader to examine these issues, and ruminate over them long after the last page is turned.